Screening History

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In those days there was a monthly film documentary called The March of Time ; it was produced by the publishers of the magazines Time, Life , and Fortune . Today’s equivalent would be CBS’s “Sixty Minutes.” The March of Time screened the world through the imperial American eyes of Christ-loving, Red-fearing, people-hating Henry Luce, who had got some of the financing for the original Time magazine from a Yale classmate, my stepfather. I was obliged to call him Uncle Harry. He had thick hair on the backs of his fingers; they looked like caterpillars. He once said, in my hearing, that his famous wife, Clare Boothe Luce, did not understand him. I was thrilled; this was MGM dialogue at its best. Years later he confided to me that the true mission of the United States in the world was the Christianization of China. Uncle Harry was mad as a hatter. But he was a master of the art of screening history.

The March of Time doted on my father. Aviation was glamorous, and he was glamorous. He was only thirty-eight when he took over what was, in effect, the job of Secretary of Aviation. He was also, I now realize, a conscious player in the pre-war war games. One March of Time is devoted to the story of how Gene Vidal took over an uninhabited Pacific island and turned it into a fueling base for an American transpacific commercial air route. Unfortunately the island was a part of the far-flung British Empire, and my father had forgotten to tell the British what he was up to.

Cut to the exterior shot of barren island. Cut to my father, grinning. Cut to comic Englishman, who says, “His Majesty’s government views with alarm.…” Cut to my father at his desk in the Commerce Building. He is deeply sincere. He tells us that no one had ever told him that the island belonged to England, and that he couldn’t be more sorry. He remembered looking at the map just before he took over the island, and he was pretty certain that it was not pink like the rest of the Empire. Maybe the cartographers were at fault…

In any case we kept the island, and it played a part in the long-awaited and planned-for war with Japan. But outside the newsreel theaters Japan was almost entirely ignored. It seemed as if the only country on earth was England and there were no great personages who were not English or impersonated by English actors. I recall no popular films about Washington or Jefferson or Lincoln the President. As as result, England, and to a lesser extent France, dominated all our dreams. It was not until 1939 that we got our story, Gone with the Wind . But by then a whole generation of us film watchers had defended the frontiers of the raj and charged with the Light Brigade at Balaklava. We served neither Lincoln nor Jefferson Davis; we served the Crown.

On-screen the French were not too far behind the British. The Three Musketeers —confusingly four in number—transplanted us to the court of Louis XIII, a rather more satisfying place than that of the feckless Louis XVI or even that of sardonic Louis XV, as played by John Barrymore. We were taken even farther back in time to François Villon, played by the English romantic star Ronald Colman. Unknown to us at the time, Colman was British intelligence’s man in Hollywood, in place to make sure that England would look its best on the screen.

By 1937 royal-mania had gripped the great Republic. Also, a tide of pro-British sentiment came to a well-calculated crescendo in the spring of 1939, when the king and queen came to Washington on a state visit.

I stood in the crowd in front of the Treasury Building and cheered the monarch. George VI was a very small, thin man, with a delicate face painted nut brown in marked contrast with the huge red face of our President, who kept tossing his head around and grinning in imitation of his wife’s uncle, Theodore Roosevelt. But then Presidents almost always imitate successful predecessors. As a speaker Kennedy imitated Franklin Roosevelt, who imitated Woodrow Wilson, who in turn imitated … Jefferson Davis, it was once cruelly said. Now with a century of screened history available at the touch of a button, a wide range of prototypes are available to the ambitious politician.

On both sides of the Atlantic movies were preparing us for a wartime marriage with our English and French cousins, against our Italian and German cousins.

Particularly popular were the productions of an English-based Hungarian, Alexander Korda. He made his first great success with Henry VIII, whose baroque table manners, as demonstrated by Charles Laughton, set an awesome standard for the American child. Korda also befriended an out-of-office politician and journalist named Winston Churchill, who contributed several swatches of purple dialogue to at least one Korda film.